Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization. He looked up and replied, “That would be a good idea.” I’ve thought about that answer a lot recently, as we struggle with our vision for a restored Chesapeake Bay. As folks have sent in their views and made their suggestions for the new Bay Agreement under consideration for 2000, a number have cited the need for such a vision. That would be a good idea. And I wish we could find our way to have one.
We don’t now, in part because we know there are some things about the Bay that will never be the same. So we can’t fall into nostalgia about some time in the past that cannot be recreated. Yet we seem equally incapable of thinking about how a restored Chesapeake might look with a watershed of 18 million or so people and the effluvia of their lifestyles draining into it.
I have come to believe that at the heart of our confusion is a morass of conditions and trends, some good, some bad, some seemingly hopeless, and that as soon as we latch on to something that looks good and trackable, we are stymied by the next issue, which looks terrible and intractable. Some serious sorting might help.
First, there are a number of areas where we seem to know how to make progress and the trends are in the right direction. We should press forward in these areas and set ambitious goals. Nutrient reductions, a key to restoring the grasses, fish and shellfish of the Bay, fall in this category. Much as we fuss over whether this tributary or that will achieve its 40 percent reduction, or whether it will happen for nitrogen in 2000 or 2002, the achievement has been remarkable, and nutrient levels in nearly all our rivers are on the way down. The big exception is the concentrated poultry areas of the Eastern Shore, but elsewhere we have learned how to get the loadings down and have a pretty good idea of how to do more. We also know that the threat of a regulatory regime will spur us to keep our cooperative efforts in high gear.
There are a number of other areas where we have made progress and need to keep up the momentum. A two-thirds reduction in toxic loadings, three quarters of our crops covered by Integrated Pest Management, agricultural best management practices in place on nearly half our croplands and air pollution reductions are all successes we should build on. Looking at our fisheries, we have had the rockfish recover, and seem to be turning a corner on oysters and shad, although the absolute numbers for both are still very low. New goals for each of these seem logical, but how much of all of this adds up to a vision?
Then there is a second group of issues, those where we are holding our own, but must persevere to avert the danger of a downturn. These are the current or emerging battlegrounds, where a bad management decision or simple complacency can cause the trend to turn negative. Surely, you have no trouble identifying some of these issues. At the top of everyone’s list would be the blue crab, which we seem to be managing right at the edge of a viable population, with always the danger or threat or rumor of a crash. I would also add dredging to the list, not so much for the big visible projects like Site 104, but more for the expectations that everyone has that the new grass beds in their river surely can’t be left alone if they get in the way of maintaining the channels needed by weekend sailors. Wetlands and forest cover also fall in this category. The recent ditching of wetlands in Virginia and the continued loss of forests near the Bay to development pressures threaten the overall basinwide balance we have been able to achieve to date for these critical resources.
The tricky thing about this second set of issues is how we reach an agreement on measuring progress. Because they are areas of controversy, there is resistance to setting aggressive goals that would force people to deal with the underlying conflicts and correct the statutory and management deficiencies. So while these issues draw a lot of our attention and energy, our inability to readily reach consensus on anything but unspecific or uninspiring goals leads us to a sense of dissatisfaction. And, the public is not impressed. So our effort to establish a vision is further frustrated.
But it is even tougher. There is a third set of issues — those where the trends are in the wrong direction. The consumption of forests, farms and other open land by development continues to grow. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the rate of loss is now 90,000 acres each year. Vehicle miles traveled continue to increase at four times the rate of population growth in the watershed. And more and more of the watershed is being paved over, roofed over or otherwise converted to impervious surfaces.
On the one hand, most people admit that unless these and similar negative trends are reversed, the long-term health of the Bay and its rivers will remain in jeopardy. At the same time, the trends are so strong and are so tied to lifestyle choices of the citizens of the watershed, that those in the Program who want to try to deal with them have a heavy burden.
First, there is the argument that such issues are outside the scope of the Bay Program. Then there are those who believe they are issues of personal preference which should be avoided even if they are relevant. Finally, there are those who say there is little the Bay Program can do about them anyway.
And just to add another layer of angst, there are those who believe that these negative trends are so central to our ultimate success that any goal that aims to do less than reverse them is inadequate and misleading.
Taking all this into account, is it any wonder that there is a problem with “the vision thing”? Is there a way out of all this confusion?
I am beginning to think the answer may simply be to face the reality of the job before us. We can all agree that we want to get the Bay back to a healthy stable system. The question is how. What if we set our goals in line with the relative difficulty of the job, and laid out a timeline to match? For all of those trends already in the right direction, let’s push hard and set aggressive goals for the coming decade. For those important issues where we are holding the line, let us commit in the next decade to stabilizing the situation and moving to establish the positive trend. And for those areas where the trends are against us, let us agree to cut the rate of growth in this decade, neutralize it in the next and convert it to a positive trend by 2020–2030.
That may not be a “vision” for the Bay, and it might not be enough to please a Gandhi. But it would cut through some of the fog.